Quebec’s student movement, and the swelling ranks of its popular allies, staged a huge rally and march in Montreal on May 22. The march supported the students’ fight for free, quality public education and rejected government repression.
Estimates by some mainstream news outlets and by many independent observers put the number of participants as high as 400,000.
It was the largest social protest in Canadian history. It amounted to a huge display of civil disobedience against a special law adopted by the Quebec government four days earlier. The law aims to break a more than three-month-long strike of post-secondary students in the province.
Lead banners on the march read: “100 days of strike, 100 days of (government) contempt!” and “Block the sexist tuition fee hike!” A huge banner of the militant, CLASSE student association -- the largest student group -- was carried overhead by hundreds of marchers and read, “May 22: This is only the beginning!”
Contingents of teachers, professors, high school students, public service workers and other trade unionists joined the march.
Marchers travelled into Montreal from across the province and people streamed into the city centre from neighbourhoods throughout the metropolitan region. French-language media termed the march a “monster” demonstration.
Montreal’s English language daily covered its front page with an aerial photo of the march and a headline reading “River of Red,” referring to the symbolic colour of the student movement (symbolising student indebtedness) that was omnipresent that day.
Leaders of the three largest student associations held an impromptu press conference along the route of the march. Leo Bureau-Blouin of the association of junior college students (the FECQ) told journalists: “We are united today in this huge demonstration aiming not only to mark 100 days of the strike but also to denounce the Charest (Quebec) government and the course of events following its decision to choose repression over discussion…”
Referring to the draconian Bill 78 that was adopted by Quebec’s National Assembly on May 18, which effectively proscribes the right of students to strike and protest, a leader of CLASSE, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, told reporters that the law is “absurd and unenforceable. The proof of that is here today, where the street is speaking forcefully.”
Challenging Quebec’s minister of public security, he said: “If the minister wants to be true to his law, he will have to levy fines on tens of thousands of people.”
Truncheons and handcuffs
The students are on strike to block a proposed 75% hike in post-secondary tuition fees over the next seven years. Many consider their fight to be one front in a broader struggle for a society of social and environmental justice.
François-Xavier Clermont, a student at junior college du Vieux-Montreal, told the Montreal daily La Presse: "We are fighting against the tuition hike, but we’re also fighting against the Northern Plan (a proposal by the Quebec government to expand natural resource exploitation in the vast, north of the province) and against this corrupt government.”
He continued: “We have succeeded in opening up a debate over the future of Quebec society. This is already a victory.”
The government of Premier Jean Charest did an apparent about-face on May 24 when it said it would resume talks with the student associations that broke off on May 5. But this came on the heels of a massive escalation of repression in the preceding days, so the government’s intent is not yet clear.
During the evening of May 23, provincial and municipal police forces arrested 518 protesters in Montreal and 150 in Quebec City. Thirty six were arrested two nights earlier in Sherbrooke.
The number of arrests in Montreal that evening exceeds those during the infamous declaration of martial law by the Canadian government in October 1970. Martial law aimed to break the powerful movement for Quebec independence.
In Montreal, police held the arrested protesters in buses overnight as their charges were processed. The cops had declared an evening protest “illegal” under municipal regulations. One young woman who was detained told CBC Radio that police acted like “animals”.
The detainees were denied bathroom access and one man who suffered a cardiac emergency was denied emergency medical treatment. The fine for the alleged offences is C$634 ($631).
Many commentators noted that although the arrests in Quebec City and Sherbrooke were conducted in the name of Bill 78, the charges that were eventually laid were for violation of municipal regulations or provincial traffic laws.
There were few arrests during the monster demonstration on May 22, but 113 people were arrested at a protest the next evening. About 2500 arrests have been made since the onset of the student strike.
The government is counting on a combination of threats, fines and police violence to quell and eventually discourage the student movement. But the opposite is happening — the protest movement is growing.
Nightly protests in Montreal that students and supporters have been waging for 30 consecutive nights are growing exponentially. Roger Rashi, a longtime activist with the left-wing Quebec Solidaire party, said the nightly march of May 24 drew several tens of thousands of participants, which is 10-20 times the pre-Bill 78 nightly numbers.
What’s more, he said, the marches are spreading geographically. There were numerous, concurrent marches in the city that evening.
A new movement, “Angry Mothers in Solidarity” (Mères en colère et solidaires) has emerged in recent weeks and is spreading rapidly as a result of Bill 78. Nightly, spontaneous protests by mothers in support of the students had developed weeks ago in working class districts in the centre of Montreal such as Rosemont, Villeray and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.
It began with the banging of pots and pans each evening from apartment balconies and streets, gradually emerging into street protests.
The movement has coalesced into multiple, nightly marches and is spreading like wildfire throughout the province. Timing and locations each evening are coordinated via Twitter. Thousands of mothers from the movement joined the May 22 March.
“I march alongside the other mothers because I am one, but this is really about future generations,” Marie Christine Chabot, 45, a nurse, told the Montreal daily The Gazette on the May 22 march.
“The more that education is accessible to everyone, the more society is likely to make the right choices. I see it in my work: People with more education smoke less, eat better, exercise more, and have less stress. We’d all be better off if people were better educated.”
Marie-Claude Gagnon, a social worker and founder of Mères - and whose children are aged 3, 9 and 13 - told the paper: “It’s important to show it’s not just students out in the streets protesting. The symbol of mothers is a good one, and it also helps protect us in the crowd. The police think twice about wading into a group of mothers and children.”
A micro-brewery has placed its ‘Grande Noirceur’ beer on special sale terms. The name translates as "the great darkness", a term deeply embedded in popular culture that describes the years of rightist government in Quebec under Premier Maurice Duplessis from 1944 to 1959.
The brewery says its daily production is limited to less than 50 bottles in deference to the provision of Bill 78 that requires protests of more than 50 people to seek advanced police permission.
A new website invites people to post personal declarations of defiance of Bill 78 by posting a photo of themselves along with a comment on the law. Called “Arrest Me, Someone!” (Arretez-moi, quelqu’un!) the site has more than 4,000 declarations and the number is growing.
Protesters of all political persuasions are taking to wearing face coverings. This is in defiance of a Montreal municipal law rushed into adoption May 17 and a similar law threatened by the federal government that makes it illegal to wear a face covering (mask) at a protest declared “illegal”.
In the days after the adoption of Bill 78, government and police websites came under attack. They were disabled by internet hackers, many from abroad.
News of the student protest is spreading around the world and solidarity actions have taken place in Paris and New York City.
Trade unions, opposition political parties and the Quebec Bar Association have all denounced Bill 78 and called on the government to reach a negotiated settlement with the students.
Discussion over struggle's direction
The largest student association, CLASSE, is calling for defiance of Bill 78. That issue is being widely discussed among progressive social and political forces, including among members of the Quebec Solidaire party. The party has voiced strong support for the strike and its members have mobilised.
During the course of the May 22 protest, CLASSE did not inform the police of its route for the protest that day, as required by Law 78. However, the two other large student associations did, as well as the large trade union contingents joining with them on the march.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of demonstrators followed the lead of CLASSE in marching on the route of their choosing for hours through the downtown core of the city, including during the afternoon rush hour. The police were powerless to act.
Some student and union leaders are quietly projecting an eventual, electoral outcome to the struggle over tuition fees and the broader issues it has sparked. The opposition Parti Quebecois, which is supported by most trade union centrals, sits well in polls. The bourgeois nationalist party says it would immediately repeal Law 78 if elected.
But it’s not at all clear if the government will call an election. It has problems not only with the student struggle but also with a corruption scandal weighing heavily on it.
Last year, the government was obliged to convene a special commission of inquiry into the close ties between the criminal syndicates that run much of the construction industry in the province and successive Liberal Party governments.
Coincidentally, the commission began its public hearings on May 21. These will continue well into the fall. Testimony is expected to be especially damning to the party and the current government. A recent poll showed 80% of the population believes the Liberal Party to be thoroughly corrupt.
The Parti Quebecois is also threatened by potential revelations before the commission. The same poll showed 65% of respondents say they consider past PQ governments to be tainted by similar corruption. The party governed the province for 18 of the past 36 years.
Support for the student strike in Quebec from the rest of Canada has been building, albeit slowly. Students and unions in Ottawa are organizing a solidarity action on May 29, to include a march across the Ottawa River into the neighbouring Gatineau region of Quebec.
Ottawa students have already joined several actions in Quebec, including the May 22 march. Hundreds of people attended a solidarity rally in Vancouver on May 22. In Ontario, a student solidarity network has been formed to step up support action in that province.
Trade unions in Canada have provided financial support and contingents of activists came to Montreal for May 22, including Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan.
On the other hand, support from the New Democratic Party (NDP), the federal party to which many trade unions in English Canada are affiliated, has been all but absent. Party leader Thomas Mulcair explains his party’s silence by the fact that education is a provincial responsibility. However, Bill 78 is a massive violation of the rights and freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the Canadian Constitution.
In last year’s federal election, the NDP became the official opposition party for the first time in Canadian history. Nearly 60% of the party’s MPs represent electoral districts in Quebec. They have apparently been muzzled by the party brass.
The student protest is beginning to worry business interests in the city of Montreal that depend on the tourism industry. Hoteliers say that advance bookings are down 10% compared with last year. A string of large summer events and festivals in the city, including a Grand Prix auto race, draws hundreds of thousands of cash-wielding visitors to the city each year.
In a delicious irony for striking students, a co-leader of CLASSE, Jeanne Reynolds, has won an award for academic excellence from the office of the titular head of the provincial government of Quebec, its Lieutenant Governor.
The “excellence” of her and her student colleagues on the picket lines and in street protests is also winning awards--in the hearts and minds of growing numbers of working class people in the province.
The Quebec government risks being swept away by a growing tide of human solidarity, with important repercussions for all of Canada.